Thin air didn't stop Stewart from mowing down batters - Albuquerque Journal

Thin air didn’t stop Stewart from mowing down batters

Dave Stewart has successful years at Triple-A Albuquerque before becoming a three-time World Series champion. (Journal file)

The thin air can be a pitcher’s worst enemy. And the way the ball managed to regularly fly out of the old Albuquerque Sports Stadium would get in the heads of even the best of minor league pitching prospects who played for or against the Albuquerque Dukes through the years.

But not “Smoke.”

No, Dave Stewart, who is being inducted Saturday into the Albuquerque Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, began perfecting the iconic glare known throughout Major League Baseball when he was pulling down his red Dukes cap in two seasons with the Dukes in 1979 and 1980 – never letting a hitter or the hitter-friendly elements of New Mexico force him to lose focus on the mound.

“Obviously, the ball carries there pretty well, at that old ballpark anyway,” Stewart said with a chuckle in a recent interview with the Journal.

“… Believe me, it’s not the easiest place in the world to pitch. After you get over the fact that you’re pitching in Albuquerque, you just go out and try to do your job. It became a lot easier for me. You can be intimidated in that ballpark and pitching in that atmosphere. It’s easy to get intimidated. But that year (1980), everything came together well for me.”

Boy, did it.

While Stewart is certainly best known for his decorated Major League career, which includes three World Series championships, a World Series MVP and two American League Championship Series MVPs, his final step to the majors was in Albuquerque.

Stewart won 27 games in two-plus seasons with the Dukes – pitching one game in 1977 and then two full seasons in 1979 and 1980. His gem of a 1980 season – a Pacific Coast League-leading 15 wins, 202 innings pitched, 3.70 ERA and 125 strikeouts – proved to be all the Dodgers needed to see before deciding to bring the pitcher known as “Smoke” to Los Angeles for the 1981 season.

Stewart completed his MLB career in 1995, retiring with the Oakland Athletics.

“I remember Albuquerque well,” Stewart, 65, said. “I was young, man. It was a great city at that time I was there. When you play minor league baseball and play in places like Clinton, Iowa; Danville, Illinois; or Bellingham, Washington; and then you get to a place like Albuquerque, New Mexico, you do have an appreciation for that. You take in the restaurants. You take in the people. And you take in the ballpark atmosphere.”

Stewart said he looks forward to getting back to Albuquerque for this weekend’s Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at Isotopes Park – even if the yard doesn’t have the drive-in parking in the outfield he so fondly remembers from his playing days when cars would park beyond the outfield fence to watch the games.

Saturday’s three-man induction ceremony includes Stewart; Ron Cey, who played for the Albuquerque Dodgers from 1967-1970 and then for the Dukes in 1972 before becoming an MLB teammate of Stewart with the Los Angeles Dodgers for two seasons; and Richard “Dick” Moots, the Rio Rancho graphic designer who in 1972 designed the Dukes logo that over the past half century has become a symbol for Albuquerque – even more than two decades after the Dukes left town.

“Oh yeah, I remember that logo,” Stewart said. “It’s a great logo.”

The Albuquerque Professional Baseball Hall of Fame is coordinated by the Albuquerque Isotopes. Each year, the Isotopes honor new inductees at a game that often coincides with the popular annual Dukes Retro night game, as does this Saturday’s game.

Of his being inducted to the Hall of Fame in a city he spent less than two years of his life in, the Oakland, California, native said he takes no such honor for granted.

Former Oakland Athletics player Rickey Henderson, left, gestures next to former teammate Dave Stewart before a baseball game between the Athletics and the San Francisco Giants in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

“Anytime someone or an organization honors you by inducting you to their Hall of Fame, that’s a huge honor. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Major League Hall of Fame or a Little League Hall of Fame, it’s an honor,” Stewart said.

“When you’re playing, you really don’t have any idea of the mark you’re leaving on a team or in the city that you played in, and so for this many years later to be able to come back and have people remember me for the body of work that I did in the seasons that I played there, it’s a tremendous honor.”

‘TOPES FRIDAY: vs. Sugar Land, 7:05 p.m., Isotopes Park, 610 AM/95.9 FM

PROMOTION: Beach towel giveaways

PROBABLES: Space Cowboys LHP Jonathan Bermudez (1-3, 8.19 ERA) vs. Isotopes RHP Ashton Goudeau (0-4, 11.81)

NOTABLE: Friday’s game is the first at Isotopes Park since July 3. After that was a 12-game road trip followed by a four-day break wrapped around the Major League all-star festivities. The Isotopes are scheduled for nine consecutive games at home.

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